Health experts: HPV vaccine cuts cancer risks
August 3, 2015
The most dangerous strains of human papillomavirus, which are linked to causing cervical cancer, could be a problem of the past, as more young people get vaccinated against the sexually transmitted infection.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 79 million Americans are currently infected with HPV and approximately 14 million people become newly infected each year, making it the most common sexually transmitted infection in the nation. But there is hope. Both Gardasil and Cervarix protect teens and young adults from the most dangerous strains of HPV — strains 16 and 18. And researchers continue to discover new ways of guarding young people from more of the numerous strains of HPV.
"It's important for parents and young people to be aware of the options available to protect them from sexually transmitted infections," said Tania Engle, physician assistant and internal medicine clinic manager at Vail Valley Medical Center. "Families should feel encouraged to speak to their physician and learn more about HPV vaccinations."
Last year, Gardasil, a vaccination that protected girls and boys against the most dangerous strains of HPV, defended against four strains. In December 2014, the latest version of Gardasil offered protection from nine strains. As a result, it prevents infection from the HPV strains that cause nearly 70 percent of cervical, anal, vaginal, vulva and throat cancer and cause about 90 percent of genital warts.
HPV infections fall into two categories: low-risk and high-risk, and more than 99 percent of all cervical cancers are caused by high-risk HPV viruses. The American Cancer Society predicts that about 12,900 women will contract cervical cancer in 2015, and roughly 4,100 women will die from the disease this year.
"I tend to see the effects when people are not vaccinated, primarily in women who do not have pap smears for an extended period of time," said Engle.
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According to the CDC, HPV is so common that more than 90 percent of sexually active men and 80 percent of sexually active women will be infected with at least one type of HPV at some point in their lives.
Risks and benefits
Debate over Gardasil and Cervarix (and vaccinations in general) causes concern for some parents. Adverse effects associated with the cancer vaccinations have been reported, including autoimmune disease development, a nerve disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome and low white blood cell counts. Merck, the makers of Gardasil, and the CDC monitor the safety of the vaccination on an ongoing basis and cite the most common side effects include redness, swelling or pain at the injection site, a mild or moderate fever, headaches and gastrointestinal distress.
"The symptoms are rare and can vary but generally last no more than three days," Engle said. "The reactions that people are having tend to be similar in this vaccine as other vaccines for shingles, chicken pox, etc."
The risks and benefits of HPV vaccination have been studied, and most physicians recommend vaccination because the benefits, such as prevention of cancer, far outweigh the risks of possible side effects.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved Gardasil for females, ages 9 through 26 and males ages 9 through 15. Cervarix is approved for females ages 10 through 25. While HPV may not cause cancer in males, the vaccine helps prevent men from contracting, and then spreading, the infection.
The vaccinations are received through a series of three injections in the arm over a six-month period. The vaccines spur the immune system to develop antibodies against HPV, which is why doctors recommend prepubescent girls and boys get vaccinated early on; however, the CDC encourages "catch-up" vaccines for unvaccinated females up to age 26.
Big step in preventing cancer
Even if a person already has HPV, Engle recommends getting Gardasil, which she prefers to Cervarix because it covers more strains of HPV.
"If you already have HPV, it won't get rid of it, but it will protect you against other strains you don't have," Engle said.
After receiving the vaccination, it's important to remember that it doesn't prevent all types of HPV or any other sexually transmitted infections. Condoms or abstinence still are the most effective ways to prevent sexually transmitted infections. In addition, most cervical cancers can be detected early in women who receive routine Pap smears.
"This is one small approach to prevent STIs," Engle said, "but it's a big step in preventing cervical cancer."
However, according to a recent national survey, health officials found that only slightly more girls in the U.S. are getting the vaccine compared to last year.
A national survey released on July 30 found 60 percent of adolescent girls received at least one of three doses of the vaccine against HPV, up from 57 percent in 2013. For boys, the rate was 42 percent, up from 34 percent.
According to an Associated Press article, health officials say not enough pediatricians are strongly recommending HPV shots. Vaccination rates against other diseases like whooping cough — a vaccination that many doctors encourage patients to get — are much higher.